Skip to Main Content

Teaching the New Basic Skills

About The Book

Fifteen years ago, a U.S. high school diploma was a ticket to the middle class. No longer. The skills required to earn a decent income have changed radically. The skills taught in most U.S. schools have not. Today the average 30-year-old person with a high school diploma earns $20,200, and the nation faces a future of growing inequality and division. Teaching the New Basic Skills shows how to avoid such a future. By telling stories of real people in real businesses and real schools, the book shows the skills students need to get decent jobs and how schools can change to teach those skills.
Richard Murnane and Frank Levy begin by describing the hiring processes of best practice firms like Northwestern Mutual Life and Honda of America. In today's competitive economy, these firms search for applicants with the New Basic Skills -- the mix of hard and soft skills that all high-wage employers now require. Murnane and Levy then shift their analysis to schools, asking how they can more effectively teach these New Basic Skills. By using case studies the authors show that popular school reform proposals -- higher standards, school choice, national standards, charter schools, more money -- can only be the first half of a solution to the nation's school problem. When they work as advertised, they force a school to change the way it does business. But each of these reforms needs a second half, a strategy for guiding schools toward the changes that raise student skills.
The authors show how that strategy rests on five management principles that focus a school on student achievement. These principles grow out of the experiences of real schools doing the dirty work of educational reform: an elementary school in East Austin, Texas organizing low-income Hispanic parents around higher educational performance, an affluent New England community retraining its teachers, the state of Vermont devising new ways to measure the math skills employers require, a Boston high school creating incentives for low-income minority students to devote more time and attention to schoolwork.
Superintendents, governors and business leaders agree on the importance of this book as evidenced in the forewords by Robert Galvin, Chairman of Motorola, and Thomas Payzant, school superintendent of Boston. For those who care about the success of U.S. schools, Teaching the New Basic Skills is an optimistic guide to the future and a must read.


Chapter 1

Preparing to Meet the Future

East Austin, Texas. Zavala Elementary School is a two-story yellow-brick structure built in 1936 and now connected by walkways to 18 portable classrooms. The school sits on tree-lined Robert Martinez Jr. Street between Santa Rita Courts and Chalmers Courts, two Hispanic public housing projects.

T. A. Vasquez lives around the corner from Zavala Elementary. All four of her children went to school there. Her third child, Cynthia, had a solid B average in first-grade math, and T. A. assumed Cynthia was doing well. Nobody at Zavala Elementary told T. A. that Cynthia and most of her classmates were scoring at the fifteenth percentile on the Texas statewide mathematics test. The problem was real but things would get better.

Cabot, Massachusetts. Audubon Elementary School is a long way from Zavala Elementary both in terms of miles (about 1,900) and in terms of money. The average Zavala family makes about $12,000 per year; the average Audubon family makes $90,000. Still, Audubon Elementary had its problems.

Sharon Wright was picking her way through broken light bulbs on the floor of her fifth-grade classroom. Earlier in the year, Sharon and seven other Cabot fifth-grade teachers took a 10-week afterschool course designed just for them. The teachers thought they would learn to lead fifth-graders in hands-on experiments on the physics of light. Instead, they got two-hour lectures on theory that kept them prisoners in their chairs. They had no chance to try the experiments they were eventually supposed to lead. Now as Sharon walked among her class of 23, with extension cords crisscrossing the floor, she winced as yet another light bulb broke. The problems were real but things would get better.

This book is about the skills students now need to succeed in the economy and how schools can change to teach those skills. We begin by visiting a set of U.S. factories and offices -- two automobile factories, an insurance company, a sporting-goods wholesaler. We will see the skills required of employees and the management principles under which they work. In most of these firms, skilled employees and good management go hand in hand: a skilled person assigned to a dumb job will produce little and earn less.

Then we will visit a set of places where people are learning how to teach the skills good employers require -- poor schools, rich schools, a hospital pathology laboratory, a teachers' summer "camp" in Vermont. In these places, teachers like Sharon Wright and parents like T. A. Vasquez are doing the dirty work of school improvement: building a constituency for higher standards, constructing better incentives for students, moving teacher training beyond one-day workshops, creating tests that measure what students need to learn. Much of their work also involves management principles. To raise student skills, T. A. Vasquez, Sharon Wright, and others we will meet are making an effort comparable to reengineering a midsize business. An important part of America's future depends on how well they succeed.


During the past 20 years, the skills required to succeed in the economy have changed radically, but the skills taught in most schools have changed very little. As a result of the ever-growing mismatch between the skills of most graduates and the skills required by high-wage employers, a U.S. high school diploma is no longer a ticket to the U.S. middle class.

As late as 1979, a 30-year-old man with a U.S. high school diploma earned a yearly average of $27,700, in 1993 dollars. That income, combined with a wife's earnings from a part-time lob, secured the family a solid place in the middle class. Then, almost without warning, the economy changed. By 1983 U.S. manufacturing, threatened by imports, was rapidly downsizing, and a 30-year-old man with a high school diploma earned an average of $23,000 a year, in 1993 dollars. By 1993, with computers transforming both U.S. manufacturing and U.S. services, a 30-year-old man with a high school diploma earned an average of $20,000. The significance of this decline in earnings becomes all the greater when we realize that in 1993 half of all 30-year-old men had not gone beyond high school.

By the early 1990s, the need for a quality education extended beyond high school graduates. At all levels, the economy was forcing people to become economic free agents, constantly prepared to prove their worth in the market. Today's firms increasingly set pay based on an employee's recent performance, not long-term relationships. Jobs at IBM and AT&T now end abruptly and people must resell themselves. In this world you go to war every day, and short of being a millionaire, a very good education is your best armor.

Viewed from a distance, the economy's changes represent progress, the rebuilding of the nation's economic efficiency. In both 1994 and 1995, the United States was rated the most competitive economy in the world, a ranking unthinkable a decade earlier.

But rebuilding efficiency has exacted big human costs. The costs are clearest among men and women who have not gone beyond high school, but uncertainty now affects men and women at every level. The issue is not that U.S. educational quality has declined -- standardized test scores are modestly higher today than in the early 1980s. But the economy is changing much faster than the schools have improved. Many people -- including roughly half of recent graduates -- have an education that is no longer in demand.

The nation cannot absorb change of this magnitude without political consequences. The consequences began in the 1994 elections when all aspects of competitiveness were on display. In aggregate terms, the economy was booming: unemployment had fallen below 5.5 percent; inflation was a low 2.7 percent; labor productivity, the ultimate measure of the economy's efficiency, was growing faster than in the two previous decades. But the wages of high school graduates -- younger and older, men and women -- did not increase. And some men and women with college diplomas found their jobs eliminated through downsizing. For many voters, hope turned to anger, and the elections offered a variety of targets for blame: the president, Congress, welfare mothers, affirmative action, multinational corporations.

Missing from this list was a growing determinant of incomes -- the quality of U.S. schools. Schools were not a high-priority issue, not even among voters with school-age children. The reason why begins in public opinion polls.

In the case of schools, American public opinion is best described as schizophrenic. When Americans are asked about schools in general, the verdict is negative. In 1995, only 20 percent of Americans rated the nation's public schools as A or B, down from 27 percent in 1986. But when American parents with children in public schools are asked about their children's schools, the picture is much brighter. In 1995, 65 percent of parents gave a rating of A or B to the school attended by their oldest child, a figure as high as in 1986. When pressed to name a problem in their local public schools, 11 percent of public school parents cited poor discipline and 8 percent cited violence. Only 4 percent faulted educational quality.r

Parental satisfaction is important because when parents are dissatisfied with their children's schools, the politicians notice and the schools can change. In the last 15 years, parents of handicapped children have pushed to get their children moved into regular classes, and schools have responded. Large numbers of parents have pushed schools to teach about drug abuse, smoking, and, in some cases, AIDS; and the schools have responded. Compared to these issues, higher student skills attracted little parental interest. From a political perspective, there was not much to debate.

Why didn't parents press for more rigorous skills? It isn't that parents don't care. Among adults who rated their local schools as better than the average public school, 79 percent cited the local school's greater emphasis on high academic achievement as the primary reason. But parents have read that test scores are slowly rising. They see their children learning as much in school and doing as much homework as they did. They see that the schools are teaching their children at least as many skills as they, themselves, learned in school.

But until quite recently, many parents did not see that the skills that were sufficient to earn a good living in 1970 are not good enough today. Changes in the economy have made the standard U.S. high school education a glut on the market. These same changes require a sounder education at all levels of schooling.

Now, under the constant pounding of the economy, parental attitudes have begun to change. In the most recent Gallup poll, the percentage of adults supporting higher standards for promotion stood at 87 percent, up from 70 percent in 1979. Similarly, a 1995 poll by the Public Agenda Foundation probed parental attitudes and found beneath the surface satisfaction a growing worry that their children's education was inadequate. In this poll, 41 percent of parents with children in public schools said that a high school diploma is not a guarantee that a student has learned the basics. The results also showed strong support for a greater emphasis on basic skills and on standards for promotion and graduation. In this book, we show how teachers and parents are translating this amorphous discontent into better schools.


Suppose the increasing obsolescence of the education provided by most U.S. schools is allowed to continue. What will happen? The outcome is not hard to imagine. The children of the wealthy and clever will be clustered in privileged schools -- public and private -- that do emphasize appropriate skills. These children will get good education and the good jobs, and the vast majority of other children will compete for what is left.

Despite this future, some persons argue that better schools are a dead end. The economy, they say, produces only a certain number of good jobs, so educating too many people too well will only drive down the wages of skilled workers. This argument has a surface plausibility. And its logic is correct in the short run. Train more people to be physicians, and in the short run, the wages of physicians will fall. But in the long run, rising productivity raises the wages of any worker who is in demand. In 1950, the United States had one physician for every 653 people. By 1990, there was one physician for every 406 people. And yet over this time, physicians' average incomes grew from $75,000 to $180,000 (in 1993 dollars), a faster growth than occurred in the earnings of most other occupations. Over four decades, physicians could both increase their supply and increase their paychecks because they were an occupation in demand.

But suppose physicians had not been in demand. Suppose they had been like the farm laborers of 1949 whose jobs were being eliminated every day by new tractors and threshers. Faced with technical obsolescence, farm laborers had two alternatives: find a new line of work, or remain a farm laborer at ever lower wages, no matter how the economy was growing.

Many farm laborers found new work by moving to cities and taking manufacturing jobs. They could make the move because they already had the skills required for the jobs the city could offer. The corresponding move today -- from displaced factory worker to customer service representative -- is much harder because the customer service representative's job requires skills that many factory workers don't have.

The displaced factory worker's situation highlights the real effect of keeping education weak: the exclusion of many students from the high-skilled sectors of the economy, the sectors that by all projections will be growing and able to sustain high wages over the decades to come.


In the chapters that follow, we emphasize improvements in K-12 education, and this raises a final objection. Isn't it true, one might ask, that a student has to go to college to be middle class today? After all, the earnings of college graduates have held up quite well over the last 15 years even as the earnings of high school graduates have declined.

If four (expensive) years of college were required to enter the middle class, it would pose an enormous obstacle to mobility. Fortunately, the apparent importance of college depends as much on what K-12 schools are not doing as on what is learned in college. In Chapter 2 we show that the widening earnings gap between high school and college graduates stems in large part from differences in the mastery of basic skills when the two groups were high school seniors. In other words, as high-wage employers increasingly search for new workers with strong basic skills they tend to bypass high school graduates who did not go to college, because so many of them lack those skills. Hiring college graduates solves the problem of finding workers with stronger basic skills, but college is a very expensive employment agency. If all students left high school with strong basic skills, the picture would be much different.


The challenge facing Sharon Wright and T. A. Vasquez begins with two questions:

* What are the New Basic Skills -- the skills needed today to earn a middle-class income?

* What are the principles around which a school can restructure to teach these skills to all children?

The answer to the first question comes from our review of U.S. businesses in Chapters 2 and 3. Along with the characteristics that employers have always sought in new workers -- reliability, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work hard -- the employee-recruiting and work practices in firms paying high wages show the growing importance of a new set of skills:

* The hard skills: basic mathematics, problem-solving and reading abilities at levels much higher than many high school graduates now attain

* The "soft" skills: the ability to work in groups and to make effective oral and written presentations -- skills many schools do not teach

* The ability to use personal computers to carry out simple tasks like word processing

These are the New Basic Skills needed by all students, whether they go on to college or not, regardless of gender, regardless of race.

The answer to the second question comes from our visits to teaching sites in Chapters 4 through 7. In unexpected ways, the management principles emerging at these sites look very much like the management principles firms now use to manage skilled workers. Comparing selected schools and firms shows why this is no coincidence.


Many analysts argue that schools can learn from business because competition forces business "to get it right." In the chapters that follow we will see that, to the contrary, schools can learn from business because business often gets it wrong -- but the best of business has learned to recover from mistakes in new and important ways.

In economics textbooks, a business is always looking for new opportunities, nimbly moving from success to success. A real-world business is much more erratic, cycling between periods of great success and periods of ineptitude. More precisely, the great success often causes the ineptitude.

Consider Ford Motor Company early in the century. By 1916, Henry Ford's Model T had become a triumph. It was the first car built on a modern assembly line and so could be sold at a low price. By 1921 it accounted for more than half of all cars sold in the nation. But success caused Ford Motor Company to turn inward. The market changed. Other companies developed more stylish and more powerful cars. Ford Motor Company kept making Model T's with only small improvements, trying to repeat past triumphs exactly. By 1926, Ford Motor was in crisis, its dealers in revolt, its market share below 30 percent and falling fast.

Consider the more recent experience of the Wang Corporation of Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1981 Wang dominated the emerging market for word processors. Wang's systems were cumbersome -- terminals connected by cables to bulky, single-purpose minicomputers. But they offered the miracle of an electronic document that could be easily changed. The word processor brought Wang enormous success, and Wang brought Lowell a level of prosperity not seen since the nineteenth-century heyday of the city's textile mills. Then success caused Wang to turn inward. The market changed. Apple and IBM developed small, flexible personal computers. Software programs like WordStar and WordPerfect allowed a user to do word processing on those computers. Wang continued to produce single-purpose minicomputers -- the configuration that had brought it success. In 1991 the Wang Corporation declared bankruptcy, later reemerging as a much smaller, software-only firm.

In the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. schools were like Ford in 1916 and Wang in 1981. Most high school graduates were in the middle class. Parents and employers agreed that the schools were doing their job. But success caused schools to turn inward. At the end of the 1970s, schools rarely talked to employers or parents about skills, because high school graduates were still faring relatively well in the labor market. In the 1980s, that market began to change rapidly. With the advent of more technology and more international trade, high school graduates were suddenly scrambling for a decent wage and college graduates were looking for new jobs. But this was something that happened to people after they graduated. Most schools, focused inward, missed the changes.

How do organizations regain success? Until the 1980s, the process of business recovery offered little that was helpful to schools. Most recoveries involved creating a new product with the old processes -- Ford's Model A replacing the Model T. But in the past decade, demands for higher-quality goods and services have forced firms to recover by developing both new products and new processes. In modern manufacturing plants, employees use statistical process control to monitor quality and to diagnose problems. In a modern insurance company, a customer service representative armed with computer technology answers most questions directly instead of telling the customer to call a different department or to wait on hold for 10 minutes.

These new processes improve organizational performance through heavy reliance on the skills and initiative of frontline workers. To tap these skills and initiative, management has learned to design work according to new principles.

Go back to Ford Motor Company in 1916. In the River Rouge plant, each production worker had a very narrow job -- say, installing the left front wheel on a Model T. That's all he was supposed to do. Because the job was narrow, it was easy for the supervisor to assess worker performance by answering simple questions: Was the worker keeping up with the assembly line? Was the wheel securely attached?

Now move forward to today's Honda of America plant in Marysville, Ohio. The person who installs the wheel here must also monitor the quality of the installation, move over to help other employees when they have trouble, work in groups to solve production problems, and constantly suggest ways to improve assembly line performance. Through this organization, Honda and other automobile manufacturers are able to continuously raise quality and lower cost -- something that was much harder in Henry Ford's day.

But in the Honda plant today, a supervisor finds it much harder to rate workers than did a supervisor in a traditional Ford plant. Many of the most important activities are now products of group interactions, not of repetitive actions by individuals. The group activities depend on taking initiative and applying skills. Suppose one of the bolts holding the left front wheel is misaligned on every car, and a group of workers, formed to solve the problem, has not yet found the solution. Is it because the workers are thinking hard and the problem is subtle? Or is it because the workers are thinking about the Chicago Bulls?

Without entering a worker's mind, the supervisor can't answer these questions. That is the central truth of the new processes. Because initiative and the application of skills are not easily measured, supervisors cannot use the threat of frequent checks to guarantee worker performance. Rather, they have to rely on employee initiative and knowledge, and they have to think very hard about how those qualities can be fostered.

A school that would teach the New Basic Skills faces a similar management problem. It must help teachers to learn to teach the new material. It must devise different kinds of tests that better assess what students actually understand. It must raise expectations among teachers, students, and parents about what a young person needs to know today to enter the middle class. It must find ways to engage students' attention and energy.

Like the work at Honda, managing these processes is very subtle. It can't be checked by simply counting the hours spent by students in algebra or by teachers in professional development workshops. As at Honda, success depends on the initiative and skills of all the participants -- teachers, parents, and students. And so here, too, management must think very hard about how these qualities can be fostered.

How do managers foster initiative and skill? The details differ across organizations. But best-practice firms that succeed in continually improving their product embrace five common principles:

1. Ensure that all frontline workers understand the problem.

2. Design jobs so that all frontline workers have both incentives and opportunities to contribute to solutions.

3. Provide all frontline workers with the training needed to pursue solutions effectively.

4. Measure progress on a regular basis.

5. Persevere and learn from mistakes; there are no magic bullets.

In Chapter 3 we show how best-practice firms have developed and implemented these principles, using them as a package. They realize that implementing only one or two of the five principles is not enough -- providing good incentives to untrained workers won't get the job done.

In reorganizing to teach the New Basic Skills, the schools we describe in Chapters 4 through 7 are using the same principles adapted to reflect the ways in which schools differ from firms. Consider the differences between frontline workers at Honda of America and at East Austin's Zavala Elementary School. Honda's organization chart shows production associates in assembly, painting, welding, parts stamping, and engine production. Honda's success depends on giving these associates the skills and incentives to advance Honda's goals.

Identifying and managing the frontline workers at Zavala Elementary School is more of a challenge. Certainly its teachers, like Honda's production associates, are frontline workers paid to contribute to the organization. And as at Honda, providing teachers with skills and incentives to improve Zavala's performance is a big part of restructuring. But at Zavala, the students and their parents also qualify as frontline workers; their actions, too, are central to the learning process. Since students and parents aren't paid school employees, providing them with the right incentives is much more difficult, but it remains critical.

Take students first. We will show in Chapter 2 that mastery of basic mathematics has a bigger impact on the earnings of 24-year-old high school graduates today than in the late 1970s. So skills pay off eventually, and the return is greater than in the past. But even today, mathematics mastery has no impact on a 20-year-old's earnings. The reason is simple. Because schools and employers rarely talk, employers have little idea which recent graduates have the New Basic Skills, and so performance in school has little impact on a graduate's first job. The immediate message to students is that skills don't matter. So why do the hard work to master these skills?

Many parents, especially those whose education did not extend beyond high school, have similar attitudes. Because they fail to see the close connection between the New Basic Skills and earnings, they see little reason to insist that their children turn off the TV and work hard on homework every night. As long as students and parents see the world in this way, rigorous education is not a reasonable goal.

In adapting the Five Principles, schools also understand that they lack certain options available to business. Engaging teachers, parents, and children at Zavala Elementary is hard work. If Zavala were a business, the school principal would have been tempted to change his suppliers -- to recruit better-educated and more affluent families, as Honda could do with a supplier that was consistently sending faulty parts. If Zavala could recruit more affluent families, the test scores of children there would almost certainly rise (although test scores would fall in the schools that took the students Zavala had rejected). But, of course, recruiting families is not something Zavala can do. Like most U.S. public schools, it is required by its state's constitution to serve all students who walk through its doors.

Despite these differences, today's schools and many of today's firms face the same central problem: both must respond to a rapidly changing market and both must improve quality by developing and making use of the frontline workers. This common problem accounts for the emergence of common principles from the best schools and the best businesses.

In Chapters 4 through 7 we examine the first four principles, one at a time. Chapter 4 describes how T. A. Vasquez and the other parents at Zavala Elementary School worked with teachers to implement a more rigorous curriculum. But the parents could not support better education until they understood what the problem was.

Chapter 5 tells how Tony Barbosa, a student at Boston High School, found the right incentives as a participant in Boston ProTech, a youth apprenticeship program. In many U.S. high schools, students have few incentives to take challenging courses. Boston ProTech and a modest number of other programs across the nation are working to provide strong incentives to students and to bridge the enormous gap between low-income inner-city schools and the big city white-collar employers.

Chapter 6 tells how fifth-grade teachers at Cabot Elementary School eventually got the training they needed to teach the physics of light through hands-on experiments. Chapter 7 describes how Vermont educators collaborated to devise new methods of assessing students' progress in acquiring communication and problem-solving skills.

All the stories recounted in these chapters demonstrate operation of the fifth principle: persevere and learn from mistakes. The stories show real people trying an idea, making mistakes, recovering, and ultimately finding better approaches. Chapter 8 discusses perseverance in greater detail and explains why the school reforms most advanced by politicians -- more money, parental choice, charter schools, and national or statewide standards -- are incomplete answers to the U.S. school problem. When they work, each of these reforms is a stimulus for change. None says anything about the form change should take. The stories in these chapters show that no change can raise student skills without doing the dirty work: the training of teachers, the organizing of parents, the restructuring of student incentives, the development of measures that will accurately chart progress.

The challenge of improving U.S. schools is difficult, but it can be met. As parental concern continues to grow, higher student skills will become an issue like smoking and diet and exercise: areas where great national changes are possible once people recognize the stakes and understand what to do. And like smoking and diet and exercise, parents who want better schools need not wait for some new state or national program. The process of teaching the New Basic Skills can occur -- can only occur -- on a school-by-school basis. Chapter 9 shows how committed people can begin this process.

A final point. In this book we argue that the most important problem U.S. schools face is preparing all children for tomorrow's jobs. As we make this argument, we recognize that some schools face the more immediate problem of establishing safety and order.

There is no simple pattern here. In the last 10 years, minority students have made significant gains in standardized test scores (Chapter 2). But for some children -- minority and white -- the trip from a poor neighborhood to the white-collar world remains an incredible journey. And in some schools, being able to go to the bathroom in safety is a precursor to interest in decimals and literature.

In the chapters that follow, we will show that progress is possible even in such schools when parents, students, and teachers know where they want to go and have the principles for getting there.


Copyright © 1996 by Richard J. Murnane and Frank Levy

About The Authors

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (September 4, 1996)
  • Length: 272 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684827391

Browse Related Books

Raves and Reviews

John S. Reed Chairman, Citicorp This is an important book. It is an optimistic book and can make a difference. It should be read by anyone interested in what is going on in our country those of us who are parents, teachers, administrators, or others who care about our schools...and importantly by business people who will better understand how to link the needs of the workplace with the changes that need to take place in our schools.

Roy Romer Governor, State of Colorado Teaching the New Basic Skills provides compelling arguments -- using lessons from the private sector -- about what will need to change in the classroom and in schools if more students are to reach higher standards...This book will be a useful tool for its readers.

William F. Weld Massachusetts This book will serve as an important guide in the creation of a school-to-work continuum that prepares all students for success. The New Basic Skills here defined are the fundamental tools necessary to compete in our global economy.

Dr. Rudolph F. Crew Chancellor, New York Public Schools Teaching the New Basic Skills provides important ideas for helping all schools, including those in New York City, better prepare students to prosper in a changing economy. Educators will resonate with the descriptions of problems in today's schools and be heartened by the case studies showing that schools can improve markedly. The authors' Five Principles provide a powerful framework around which to organize strategies for improving our schools.

Ed Richardson State Superintendent of Education, Alabama As an educator in the midst of educational reform, I especially enjoyed your fifth principle of perseverance and the lack of a "magic bullet"...Thorough and common sense books like yours will assist us in our efforts.

Linda Darling-Hammond 1995-1996 President of American Educational Research Association The book illustrates that improvements in our schools will not come easily, but that real progress is possible when teachers, students, and parents persevere in making schools places where all children learn.

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images